I had a lot of fun writing about old skool herbal recipes last time and thought I’d give it another go. Today I give you two recipes from A Booke of diuers Medecines, Broothes, Salues, Waters, Syroppes and Oyntementes of which many or the most part haue been experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon. Anno Domini 1606 (Wellcome Collection MS.213). As I did last time, I will transcribe them verbatim and then discuss them. Where I thought the archaic spelling could be confusing, I put the modern spelling in brackets. Enjoy!
A Redd Oyle speciallye good to heale a small cutt or a great wounde, and is auaileable [available] to many other purposes to be applied always Bloode warme
Take a pinte or a quarte of Sallett [salad] oyle or as much as you think good to make (for the same will continue good 6. or 7. years) then take to euery [every] pint of Oyle two ownzes of Alcanett [alkanet] rootes (which is at all tymes to be had at the Apothecaries for iii or iiii d [3 or 4 pence] the ownze) three good handfulles of Dragon or Serpentes tounge, two handfulles of Valerian and an handfull of an hearbe called Love in idlenesse. Choppe all the hearbes as smale as hearbes for the pott and pounde the rootes as smale as other spices. That doon put all togeather into the Oyle and boyle it till you thincke the hearbes sufficientlye boyled, then straine the same throughe a fyne clothe and put the Oyle so strained into a glasse and sett it in a place where the Sonn cometh as longe as you will. And to make it more perfect and medecinable, upon Midsommer Eve gather 3. or 4. handfulles of the blossomes of St Johnes woorte, and with an ownze of the said Alcanett roote pownded, boile them in a pinte of Oyle as before then straine it and put it to the other Oyle and set it altogeather in the Sonn. But if these blossomes be not to be had or that you want Oyle &c. or that any of all the said hearbes in the first receipte may not gotten, the Oyle and Rootes onlye used and boyled togeather as before will heale sufficientlye.
Regarding “Sallett oyle,” or salad oil, the official Plimoth Plantation website tells us “There’s also ‘sallet oil’ in the 17th century. It’s made from rapeseed; rapes being part of the turnip family. We [in America] now call that oil canola oil…” (of course the British call it rapeseed oil). I don’t think the type of oil matters much.
Our next mystery ingredient is “Dragon or Serpentes tounge.” It was also known as adder’s tongue (which is how you’ll find it listed in Culpeper), but it’s not to be confused with American adder’s tongue (Erythonium americanum). This recipe would be referring to the English adder’s tongue (Ophioglossum vulgatum), a.k.a. Christ’s spear, a fern. Mrs Grieve says of it, “This Fern has long had a reputation as a vulnerary. A preparation of it, known as the ‘Green Oil of Charity,’ is still in request as a remedy for wounds.”
[EDIT: I decided to double-check my identification of this plant. I note that Mrs. Corlyon says “dragon or serpentes tongue.” Well, I’ve identified serpent’s tongue, but what might “dragon” be? There are two candidates: Polygonum bistorta (also known as Persicaria bistorta), commonly known as “dragons,” but more commonly known today as “bistort,” and Arum maculatum, commonly called “dragons,” “dragon,” or “great dragon” (according to A Dictionary of English Plant Names, Vol. 10), but nowadays more often known as “cuckoo-pint.” Part of A. maculatum actually looks rather like Ophioglossum vulgatum. See what you think:
But A. maculatum‘s medicinal uses don’t seem to have extended to wound treatment (see, e.g., Mrs Grieve), so I think it can be ruled out. P. bistorta is an astringent and has been used to stop bleeding, but it doesn’t look like or bear any relation to serpent’s tongue. The way the text says “dragon or serpentes tongue” gives me the impression these were two names for the same plant, as opposed to two different plants; so on balance I think Mrs. Corlyon was referring to O. vulgatum, and that it too may have been called “dragon” in the early 17th century. Interestingly enough, given that a member of the violet genus is part of this recipe, according to this site, “serpent’s tongue” was also a magical code-name for violet! However I can’t find any indication that violets were ever called “dragon.”]
Plants For A Future (PFAF) says serpent’s/adder’s tongue is also haemostatic. Apparently “Many ferns also contain thiaminase, an enzyme that robs the body of its vitamin B complex…[but] The enzyme is destroyed by heat or thorough drying, so cooking the plant will remove the thiaminase,” so in this case heating the oil to infuse it is probably advisable, even though topical administration in small quantitites probably wouldn’t introduce much thiaminase into the body.
Love-in-idleness is an old folk name for the viola or wild pansy (Viola tricolor). Its flowers are purple or purple and yellow, and so would add to the redness of the oil. Gerard (and following him, Mrs Grieve) state that viola is demulcent and “commended…against scabs and itchings of the whole body, and healeth ulcers.” St. John’s wort of course is excellent for wounds and pain relief, and finally we have alkanet, which according to our friend Culpeper is good for bruises and green wounds. I find this recipe interesting because clearly the herbs have been selected for their function as vulneraries, and yet also for their color–except for the adder’s tongue, which reportedly will turn an oil it’s infused in green. (Mixing green oil with red would give you a brown oil, but I guess all the alkanet would overwhelm the green.) I note that the instructions even say to use the oil “blood warm,” which is to say at body temperature, but blood = red, so maybe there’s a deliberate analogue there.
Although red oil (or should I say “Redd Oyle”) seems to have gone out of fashion, there is a red healing oil made with St. John’s wort from Greece, called spatholado.
Next we have a recipe for an ointment:
A speciall good Oyntement called the greene Oyntement
Take a pounde of Sage a pounde of Rhue halfe a pounde of Wormewoode halfe a pounde of Baye leaves they must be chopped and weyed seuerally, then take 5. pounde of Sheepes sewett [suet] purely tryed and mynced, two handfulles of Camomele, and one handfull of Rosemarye chopped also. Mingle all these togeather, and stampe them in a morter by a little at once Untill the Sewett be not seen. Then take a pottle of Sallett Oyle and mingle with it and so lett it stande 9. days then boile it with a softe fyre alwayes stirringe it with a sticke and after it hath boyled two howers, trye if the Baye leaves crymble [crumble] like Ashes betweene your fyngers, and then take it of from the fyre and straine it, puttinge into it one Ownze of the Oyle of Spike and so keepe it.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. A “pottle” is equivalent to half a gallon (another fun-to-say word I shall have to start using in regular conversation). “Oil of Spike” is an oil made from spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia). Of course this was the days before essential oils, as you could deduce from the fact that an entire ounce is called for, but today you could substitute the essential oil. (You can even get it at Mountain Rose Herbs.) The quantities used in these old timey recipes makes me think people really must have hurt themselves a lot back in those days!
Theoretically, “Rhue” could refer to either meadow rue (Thalictrum sp.) or garden rue (Ruta graveolens), which aren’t related, but from the long litany of healing properties which our friend Culpeper ascribes to the latter–including treating “running sores,” “stinking ulcers,” “dry scabs,” and “wheals and pimples,” I’m guessing the one in this ointment is the garden variety. About bay leaves he says, “the oil takes away the marks of the skin and flesh by bruises, falls, &c. and dissolves the congealed blood in them. It helps also the itch, scabs, and weals in the skin.”
Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I’m consulting Culpeper and Gerard and so on instead of more recent herbals, it’s because I want to know why Mrs. Corlyon and the other authors of these home herbals chose the plants they did, and for that we need to look at the writings of their more-or-less contemporaries.
As clumsy as I am, I still just don’t get through that much ointment, salve, and infused oil–but I can’t wait to try some of these recipes!